TRINITY — David Salerno didn't come from a family of educators.
But as soon as he met Mr. Melby in fifth grade, while growing up in suburban Chicago, Salerno knew that teaching was for him.
"My first male teacher, Mr. Melby, was a great inspiration for me," Salerno recalled, sitting in his office. "People were really drawn to him, and I admired that in him. … It was people like Mr. Melby that made me feel drawn to teaching."
He's been at it 18 years, all in Pasco County. And now Salerno, who lives in Wesley Chapel and most recently was an assistant principal at River Ridge Middle, has become the new leader of Seven Springs Middle School.
He took over March 10, the day before the FCAT began.
"This time of year is really good," he said Thursday, sitting in his new, not fully decorated office. "You have things in motion. You get to see how things are working. The testing is in good hands."
That's given Salerno the time to meet with students and teachers, and to generally be visible in the school. He figured that, given the school's past academic successes, a key to his tenure will be collaboration with the people who use the school to build upon those results.
So he needs to get to know them. That's his main goal over the first month or so at Seven Springs.
He plans to look not only at the school's many strengths, but also to bolster areas that might need extra attention. For instance, Salerno wants to find more ways to get the most talented students to push even higher, academically and socially. He also wants to begin a parent-teacher group, something the school hasn't had.
"I'm a firm believer that you don't wait until you're sick to see the doctor," he said. "There's always room for growth."
One thing that's clear about the new principal is his love for dealing with the students. He smiles broadly as he talks expansively about ways to make middle-schoolers happy and give them opportunities to participate in activities that matter.
"I'm extremely impressed with students," he said. "When you get into a middle school and you see the ideas they have, their enthusiasm, it inspires me to want to do even more to help their learning experience be the best it can be."
Karen Tabone, the principal's secretary at River Ridge Middle, isn't surprised by that sentiment. She called Salerno, with whom she worked for 2½ years, "awesome."
"He was great with the kids. He was a great administrator and he'll be an awesome principal." Tabone said.
Adrienne Zampella, River Ridge's data entry operator, agreed. "He has a great sense of humor. He connects with the kids," Zampella said. "He's just an all-around great guy."
She recalled one day when Salerno wore the "Wendy's girl" red pigtails wig in school — she couldn't remember why, but did remember that the students at first were floored, then laughed uproariously. It broke down a lot of walls, she said.
"He doesn't take himself too seriously," Zampella said. "We're going to miss him. We call him every morning. We really want him to come back."
"If we didn't like him, we would just say 'no comment,' " she said.
Rushe Middle principal David Estabrook, who had Salerno as an assistant principal at Pine View Middle in the late 1990s, offered similar praise. "He's a fabulous educator who has great communication skills with all stakeholders," Estabrook said. "He's very motivating, very enthusiastic. … He's a wonderful person."
The River Ridge staff gave him a principal's name plate for him to put on his desk on his first day. It sits right next to the business card holder — no cards yet — his family gave him. The River Ridge football team gave him a signed ball that sits nearby.
Then there's his Gallup Strength Finder list of qualities.
It says Salerno focuses on fairness, harmony, positivity and context, and that he's futuristic.
"I think that's pretty much right on," he said.
Now it's Seven Springs Middle School's chance to find out.
Salerno, 40, is married with three children. He grew up in Arlington Heights, Ill., and attended university in Minnesota. He has worked in the Pasco school district for 18 years, including time as a teacher at Hudson Elementary and Hudson Middle schools, as an assistant principal at River Ridge and Pine View middle schools, and as a supervisor of teacher recruitment in the human resources department.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.